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Can new Homeland mission statement safeguard nation, build morale?

Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson addresses an audience Monday, March 21, 2016 during a forum at John F. Kennedy School of Government on the campus of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass. To improve staff morale, he will unveil a new strategy Wednesday to unify the 226,000 employees, including those from United States Customs and Border Protection.
Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson addresses an audience Monday, March 21, 2016 during a forum at John F. Kennedy School of Government on the campus of Harvard University, in Cambridge, Mass. To improve staff morale, he will unveil a new strategy Wednesday to unify the 226,000 employees, including those from United States Customs and Border Protection. Associated Press

With his sprawling agency ranking lowest in morale in the government, Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson will unveil a new strategy Wednesday to unify the 226,000 employees, including those from United States Customs and Border Protection, who work at the third largest Cabinet department:

A new mission statement.

“With honor and integrity, we will safeguard the American people, our homeland, and our values,” it states. In an email to employees late Tuesday, Johnson called it a “short and simple statement of who we are as a department — what we stand for, and what our values should be.”

The words were distilled from the best of 3,000 entries from employees. Johnson appealed to them in March through a video that features him changing into the multiple uniforms of DHS employees in quick succession — from Coast Guard officer to airport screener.

They tried to incorporate the most common words the employees submitted: Safeguard, unity, integrity, honor, service, vigilance, respect, dedication, people, liberty, excellence, diversity.

The timing could work to the agency’s advantage. The government is about to send out its annual survey of federal employees and how they feel about their jobs, their pay, their bosses, their chances for promotion, their mission and other aspects of workplace culture.

The same survey ranked Homeland Security last among large agencies in 2015, with just 47 percent of employees saying they were satisfied with their jobs.

Johnson has made improving poor morale one of his top priorities since he took over in 2013 as only the fourth Homeland Security chief.

But despite many efforts by Johnson and his team, including studies, committees, face time with employees and training programs, little has budged at the far-flung, hodgepodge of 22 smaller agencies that President George W. Bush created after the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

Johnson said he came up with the idea for a mission statement as he recalled his days as a litigator at Johnson & Johnson, the Band-Aid, baby and medical product manufacturer, where Robert Wood Johnson crafted a credo for the company in 1943.

“Every Johnson & Johnson employee knows it and it’s in every office,” Jeh Johnson said.

He consulted with the three former DHS secretaries, Tom Ridge, Michael Chertoff and Janet Napolitano. He talked with senior executives and organized an informal focus group of other employees.

“I didn’t want a political statement,” Johnson said. “So much of employee satisfaction is about feeling good about where you work and having a sense of purpose. I wanted a sentence people can identify with and feel good about.”

Most of all, he said he does not expect the next president to rip it up when he or she takes office in eight months. “I want it to outlast me.”

The statement was culled from 10 options that Johnson came up with as finalists. They tried to incorporate the most common words the employees submitted: Safeguard, unity, integrity, honor, service, vigilance, respect, dedication, people, liberty, excellence, diversity.

DHS did have another mission statement, crafted during Ridge’s tenure. But it was long and Johnson said that by the time he arrived, it was hard to find in any Homeland Security office. He’s leaving it up to a committee of colleagues to figure out where, and how prominently, to display the new one. It could be given to new employees at their orientation, for example.

Asked if he believes the statement is a magic bullet to boost morale, Johnson acknowledged, “This is not the sole solution.”

He called it instead the “capstone” of his lengthy effort to turn the Homeland Security culture around.

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